Friday, May 5, 2017

George Souders- the story of the 1927 ‘500’ winner

Part three

George Souders portrait
courtesy of the IUPUI University Library
Center for Digital Studies
Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection

In 1927 George Souders born near Battle Ground Indiana was a full-time resident of Abilene Texas and worked as a “service man and expert mechanic” at Roberts & St John Motor Company the local Chrysler-Plymouth dealer located at the corner of Fifth and Pine Streets in downtown Abilene.

George was one of fourteen drivers who appeared at the one-mile Albuquerque Fairgrounds track on New Year’s Day 1927.  The five-race program which began at 2 PM featured the “Rocky Mountain States premier drivers” the Gardner brothers, Raymond and Chester, each driving a "Rajo Special." “Rajo” was a brand of racing overhead valve cylinder heads designed for Ford Model T engines.

Built and sold by Joe Jagersberger of Racine Wisconsin, he used the first two letters of his hometown and combined it with the first two letters of his first name to create “Rajo.”  Chuck Anderson “the favorite of the Southwest,” also drove a Rajo while  H. Peterson “who holds the fastest record on the Douglas Arizona track” was entered in a Duesenberg.

Roy Miller from Albuquerque was entered in a Frontenac (another brand of Ford cylinder head built and sold by the Chevrolet brothers) along with Jimmy Randolph described as the Arizona State champion and “Slim” Harper in the John Mais “Dodge Special.” Two previously unknown drivers came from Colorado both described as Pike’s Peak masters - BS Burgeman and Fred Schultz. Souders, “who furnished thrills the last two races here,” Fred Frame “of Ascot Speedway fame” and San Antonio’s Harry Milburn were all entered in Millers.   

The day’s first race was a 10-mile “free for all” while the second 10-mile and third 15-mile race were reserved for “modified stock cars” (non-Millers). The auto racing program was capped by a 25-mile “free for all,” with the final event was a 10-mile motorcycle race during which the promoters claimed “the riders travel like greased lightning.” 

In time trials, Souders set new “local track record” of 44 seconds for the one mile course then swept the two “free for all” races. Chet Gardner in his ‘Rajo Special’ finished second in the first 10-mile heat, won the second and third ten-mile heat races and finished third in the 25-mile finale behind Souders and Milburn. Souders provided a thrilling finish as according to the next day’s Albuquerque Daily Reporter his Miller engine “burned a bearing then threw a connecting rod and he coasted the last ¼ lap to victory.”

On May 6 the day the entries closed for the 15th annual International 500-mile Sweepstakes Souders was listed as the driver for William S. White’s Duesenberg.  An article in his adopted hometown Abilene Journal newspaper described Souders as “equally fearless as Frank Lockhart although probably not as steady or careful.”   There were a total of 41 entries for the ‘500’  the largest list since 1919, with eleven front wheel drive entries, this only two years after the first Miller front drive machine debuted at the Speedway.
Fernic FT-10 drawing

There was only one foreign driver entered in 1927 Indianapolis 500-mile race Romanian George Fernic who entered his own Bugatti. Fernic, an accomplished pilot dating back to World War One, also designed and built aircraft.  Although Fernic’s Bugatti broke a connecting rod on May 24 and did not qualify for the 33-car starting field, he drove 182 laps during the 1927 ‘500’ in relief for Fred Frame.

Frame started the car but yielded to Fernic as Fernic had purchased the car started by Frame after his won Bugatti was withdrawn. Fernic later was killed in a plane crash during the 1930 Chicago National Air Races as he was demonstrating his radical twin-engine canard-wing plane with tricycle landing gear the Fernic FT-10 Corsair.       

A 1981 Indianapolis Star article recounted that few experts thought George Souders could even make the starting field as one recalled him as "the darkest of dark horses."  According to the 1981 article, the older 90 ½ cubic-inch supercharged Duesenberg owned by Hollywood millionaire William S. White was beset by many mechanical problems during the month. In an interview nearly fifty years later Souders recalled that he "lost count of the number of times that that ‘Duesy’ was taken apart and put together during Speedway practice."

The chief mechanic on the White-owned Duesenberg was 31-year old Frenchman Jean Marcenac who had first appeared at Indianapolis in 1920 a crew member with the three-car Ballot team. A World War One veteran Marcenac served in both the French Navy and the Air Service before he went to work in the Paris-based Ballot automobile factory.

Jean helped to build the four Ballot race cars completed in just 101 days that participated in the 1919 Liberty 500-mile Sweepstakes, and in 1920 came with the team to the United States. In addition to his mechanic duties on the low-slung  311-cubic inch  inline eight-cylinder entries  Marcenac who weighed just 150 pounds and stood 5 feet 6 inches tall served as the riding mechanic with Jean Chassagne, and together the pair finished the 1920 ‘500’ in seventh place.

Marcenac returned to Indianapolis in 1921 to work on Ralph DePalma’s new 183 cubic inch straight eight double overhead camshaft Ballot and then stayed in the United States working with DePalma. Jean rode with DePalma in the 1922 Indianapolis ‘500’ the last year riding mechanics were required.  The pair started from the third position and finished fourth behind a Ballot entered by 1913 ‘500’ winner Jules Goux and driven by Eddie Hearne. Goux at 37 years old drove the other Ballot entry but retired on lap 25 with a broken rear axle. Marcenac worked with DePalma and his nephew Peter DePaolo through the mid-nineteen twenties and started the 1927 season as DePaolo’s mechanic.  

Since George didn't qualify for the starting field until his third attempt, he started the 1927 ‘500’ from the 22nd position on the inside of the eighth row.  Lockhart dominated as the other pre-race favorites - Harry Hartz, Bennett Hill, Peter DePaolo and Leon Duray dropped by the wayside before the first 100 miles were completed. Lockhart’s intercooled Miller engine broke a connecting rod and retired with 119 laps completed.
George Souders official 1927 Speedway photo
courtesy of the IUPUI University Library
Center for Digital Studies
Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection

In 1932 car owner William White commented that Souders was “a great little driver with good form. I was tired of bringing veterans here –they know how hard it is to win. George didn’t know how really tough it is to win this race.”  Souders steadily moved up and was scored ninth after 75 miles, sixth at 50 laps and third at 275 miles. At the 300-mile mark he was second behind Pete DePaolo who was driving relief for Bob McDonogh in the supercharged Miller powered Cooper front drive machine. Souders took control at lap 150 and with the lead  with 100 miles to go George stopped for gas and three new tires and still won the race by more than twelve minutes over Earl Devore.

In a 1976 interview Souder remembered that the crew tried to talk him into letting Frank Lockhart finish the race but George declined. "The track was pretty slick and I knew how to handle the car," he said. "Someone else might have had trouble with it." In Victory Lane a shy George gave the credit for winning to his mechanic Jean Marcenac. Reportedly when Speedway officials asked George who they should notify by telegram, he replied, "There's nobody but Mother - I’ll send it myself pretty soon." One reporter claimed that George told him that he planned "to return to Purdue and resume my studies.”
A 1960 trading card issued by the Hawes Wax Co Ltd.
showing the 1927 '500 winner 

Statistically, Souders’ win marked the second and last time a yellow #32 race car won the Indianapolis ‘500,’ George was fifth winning driver to use Champion spark plugs and the fifth winning driver to use Firestone tires. Souders was the fifth “rookie” driver to win the ‘500’ in the first fifteen races, but the great Indianapolis 500–mile race was run thirty-five more times before a “rookie” Graham Hill won again in 1966.  The 90 ½ cubic inch Duesenberg power plant remains the smallest displacement engine ever to win the 500-mile sweepstakes.  

George returned home to Lafayette the day after the race and soon after the city was decorated with bunting news reel films of the race were shown in the theaters and a parade was held in Souders’ honor led by the Purdue marching band. At a banquet that evening, the mayors of Lafayette and West Lafayette each gave speeches honoring Souders and Purdue President Edward C. Elliott gave George a Purdue varsity letter. "I want to tell you how glad I am to be received in this way by my own," George Souders told the crowd. "It means more than winning the race."

Souders and the White Duesenberg appeared at the next race on the 1927 AAA (American Automobile Association) schedule a 200-miler on the 1-1/4 high banked Altoona board track but the supercharged engine broke a piston in practice. Despite not starting any other points races during the season, Souders finished the 1927 AAA season third in points behind Peter DePaolo and Frank Lockhart (who won ten of the remaining eleven 1927 races between them) based upon the 1000 points earned from his Indianapolis win.

Jean Marcenac after the 1927 ‘500’ win

Sometime after the 1927 ‘500’ victory, Jean Marcenac accepted Frank Lockhart’s offer the replace Ernie Olson as one of the mechanics on Lockhart’s team. During the winter of 1927-28, as a member of Lockhart’s team Marcenac helped build the radical U-16 powered “Stutz Black Hawk” Land Speed Record Car funded by Stutz president Fred Moscovics. Marcenac appears with the Black Hawk in photographs taken at Daytona Beach during February 1928, but it is unclear if Jean was present on April 25 1928 when Lockhart was fatally injured in the crash of the Black Hawk.

After one of the Lockhart Millers was sold his estate to Philadelphia real estate developer Edward C.Yagle, Marcenac went along with the car and won the 1929 Indianapolis 500-mile race with Yagle’s wife, Maude listed as the car owner. During the winter of 1929-1930 Marcenac worked with Harry Hartz and Phil Summers to build a new car to meet the new AAA “junk formula” rules. The new Hartz entry driven by Richard William “Billy” Arnold dominated the 1930 Indianapolis 500 as Arnold led 198 laps which gave Jean Marcenac his third “500’ win in four years. Arnold led the first 155 laps of the 1931 ‘500’ in the same machine and built up a six-lap lead until he crashed.  
Jean Marenac's official 1956 Speedway photo
courtesy of the IUPUI University Library
Center for Digital Studies
Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection

Arnold returned in the repaired front-drive Hartz machine in 1932 and led the first 58 laps and then crashed out for the second year in a row. Teammate Fred Frame took the new Miller-Hartz Wetteroth entry into the lead, led the final 58 laps, and Jean won his fourth Indianapolis ‘500’ as a chief mechanic in a six year period.  Marcenac joined forces with Harry Miller during the mid-nineteen thirties for the Four Wheel Driver Company entry and then around 1940 joined the efforts of William “Bud” Winfield’s supercharged V-8 racing engine, later known as the “Novi.” Marcenac worked for eccentric “Novi” car owners Lew Welch and later Andy Granatelli until his death on Valentine’s Day 1965.

In our next installment we will review George Souders’ life as the 1927 Indianapolis champion.           

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